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Trust rows back on ‘too tall or too short’ dismissal threat

Published on: 16 Jun 2022

Staff risk being sacked because they are too short or too tall to drive a van-conversion ambulance, union officials have warned. 

South East Coast Ambulance Service Foundation Trust is moving to a predominately van-based fleet, and raised the issue with unions last week. However, following outcry over the threat of dismissal, it says it is now working with unions to understand the implications for the “handful” of staff unable to drive the vehicles due to their height or body shape.

Trade union GMB claimed the trust suggested in a meeting on Friday that 10 per cent of frontline staff could be affected and, while redeployment might be possible, some workers might be dismissed. 

GMB senior organiser Charles Harrity said: “SECAmb did not consider how their proposals would have affected future recruitment policy or the impact that such a change would have on their stated policy on promoting inclusivity and diversity in the workforce. The proposal also had the distinct possibility that long-term experienced staff could have been forced out of the service for the bizarre reason that they are either too small or too tall.

“The GMB will be seeking complete reassurance from SECAmb that neither body shape nor size will be a defining criteria for employment in the ambulance service.”

The 2018 Carter Review into unwarranted variation in ambulance trusts recommended moving towards van-based conversions rather than buying the classic “box-based” ambulance. The review said the converted vehicles could offer considerable savings, with box ambulances costing about 20 per cent more over seven years. Van-based conversions would also need less fuel, as they do 35 per cent more miles per litre.

However, some SECAmb staff have complained of not being able to position themselves properly in the drivers’ seat in the commonly used Fiat van conversion. This mainly affects smaller women and taller men, although body shape can also be a consideration.

Most ambulance trusts are slowly converting their double-crewed fleets to van conversions. Since the Carter Review’s publication, NHS England has produced a specification for double-crewed ambulances which is based on a panel van. This is mandated for all trusts through the NHS standard contract – effectively meaning all new vehicles have to be van conversions, unless an exemption has been given.

But SECAmb is not the only trust where staff have struggled with the newer vehicles. East of England Ambulance Service Trust has employed an ergonomist to assess issues with some staff driving the van conversions and a number of modifications have been discussed.

A SECAmb spokeswoman said: “Over the past few months we have listened and responded to the concerns raised by some of our staff regarding Fiat ambulances. We have worked with the national ambulance procurement team, the vehicle manufacturers and an independent expert to properly understand these concerns and find a way forward.

“Although not yet concluded, this work has clearly shown that the vehicles are able to be safely driven by the overwhelming majority of our staff. We continue to work with our unions to understand the implications for the handful of staff that may be affected and unable to drive these vehicles.

“Moving forwards, we are committed to ensuring that we work with our staff to inform our future fleet procurement.”

NHSE said Fiat had been appointed as the supplier of the base vehicle with four suppliers appointed to convert the van it supplied to an ambulance. It added that it had worked with the ambulance sector and run a public consultation on the national specification. 

Fiat has previously told HSJ its vehicles meet all safety requirements.